Why Time Doesn’t Exist
Time is a story we tell ourselves.
Because we see ourselves as things, when what we are at the most fundamental level is a process. When you separate yourself from everything around you, drawing a mental Maginot line between ‘me’ and ‘that’, it’s inevitable that you’ll start to believe in cause and effect, in endings and beginnings. In time.
Our minds race from past to future and back again, checking in only briefly on the present before racing off to the next thought, the next dream or goal or memory. It’s never now. It’s always last year or next week.
But this is not the only story we can tell each other. In fact, some physicists maintain that time may not even exist. So while we’re telling stories…
She stood on the platform with gratuitous light playing golden fingers through her hair. Her pupils were large and dark, always, even in that bright train station light meant to turn away perverts and thieves. The sky was clear, the darkness as bare and blank as the center of her eyes, the stars scared off by the city that lay restless below. They studied the map. You know the type. Stylized stations as colorful dots laid out on lines as straight as a spiderweb, uncluttered by topography, ignorant of direction. The train doesn’t go in a straight line from Nanaimo to Edmonds, but it’s easier to pretend that it does.
“They draw these lines on the map,” she said, a single finger indicating the vertical barriers that separate Zone One from Zone Two and Zone Three, the fares increasing with the distance from the city. “But they don’t correspond to anything. They’re completely arbitrary.”
“All divisions are arbitrary,” he said.
There are all kinds of hoaxes at work.
You could spend a lifetime describing them and die with your work incomplete. At least the lines on the Skytrain map have the benefit of being a useful lie, a fraud mutually agreed upon.
Like this story. The two of them really did stand almost alone on that night-lit platform, waiting as we all wait for the train that would separate them forever. They said those words, or something like them. But how would I know really? I wasn’t there. At least, not the version of me that’s writing this.
Time is a hoax, too.
That’s not to say it doesn’t exist. Telomeres shorten, and bodies break down. Stars burn up their fuel and turn to iron. The arrow of time only points one way, and water flows back to the top of the cliff only if we run the film in reverse. Entropy is the cold law of the universe, and our lives, brief as a blink in the eyes of the stars, are temporary and local reversals of the grand theme. We are counterpoint.
But you only need to look at a map to see how false it all is. Lines of longitude, meridians, the mythical equator. The motion of the earth that makes our hours. In New Zealand, it may already be tomorrow. There’s no three o’clock, no Monday, no December. Just the impersonal and meaningless motion of the universe.
We need time. We have meetings to take and deadlines to meet, and chopping up the days into more or less arbitrary chunks — based, admittedly, on rough approximations of rotation — works.
But it isn’t real.
At some level, we all know this.
In China, it’s the year 4716, and for Jews, it’s 5780. It’s almost two weeks ago in Russia, at least going by the old Julian calendar. You don’t need me to tell you that dates and months and even hours are more or less fictional, a fiction that changes from place to place. But it’s a fiction that’s reinforced at least a little every time we look at a clock. It becomes an idea that is not easy to shake. And if you’re not careful, it’s an idea that can ruin your life.
We ate the fruit. We know the truth. We can’t last forever, and every winter seems to come more quickly than the last. So we hurry, trying to beat time at its own game. Trying to race the river to the sea. The pistol cracks, and we’re up and running before we even know what we’re running to. In the moment of a race, it all seems very serious. Nothing matters more than that finish line.
And the whole joy of the thing is to forget that it’s just a race, one whose outcome means nothing. If we really reflected on what it all meant, the pistol blast would find static runners scratching their heads in an empty stadium. Where’s the fun in that?
But you can take something seriously without believing it’s really serious. It’s life, as Bob Dylan once said, and life only. How can it be serious when we all know how it ends? You cross the finish line, whether at a gallop or crawl, and evaporate like the illusion you are. The race is over. Win or lose, your time is up.
Time is a useful illusion until you start to believe it’s real. Until you start to believe it’s finite. Because if time is finite, it instantly becomes a commodity. Something to be traded and hoarded and sold to the highest bidder, the ore you extract from a mysterious source to fashion tools and trinkets.
What will you do with your limited time on this earth?
That’s the coldhearted question behind every advert, every billboard, the reptilian gaze of every emaciated fashion model. Once upon a time, people kept pets to teach their kids about death, though grandparents work just as well. I don’t remember when I first learned that my life would someday end. It’s the truth I was born inside. The creeping shadow on the cave wall.
And from that bedrock truth, it’s an easy sell to claim that our days are numbered. That time is finite, and therefore short. As though it’s coming from somewhere and rushing away from us, second by second, day by day.
But you can beat it. That’s what the adverts say. Buy the right car, the right pair of shoes, and you can outrace it. You can get the girl, get the corner office, get the rooftop swimming pool and the view over the city. But you need to hurry. Time is short, and lunch is for wimps. Chase those grades. Get into that school and rack up all the debt that comes with it, because you may still be growing, but already time is short. It’s only August, and already the leaves are falling.
So it’s straight out of school into a job, the first thing that comes along, because you don’t have forever. And that job may fit you no better than a saddle fits a mountain, but you work it anyway. You don’t want to run out of time. You need money for a place to live and to store all the other things you should be buying. You need to meet someone. If you’re going to start a family, you don’t have forever.
Chasing health and wealth and success is bound to leave you breathless. Because the harder you try to hold onto time as it races past, the more it slips through your fingers. Life is motion and movement, and movement implies time, but the hoax is that we’re running out of the stuff. We’re not. There’s plenty more where that came from.
The same thing that divides one hour from another, one year from the next, is a line as arbitrary as the subway system’s fare zones.
And you know it yourself if you get on a plane and find yourself in a different time zone. Suddenly, magically, it’s ten when you feel sure it’s actually three. Or somehow, it’s still Tuesday, and has been for 28 hours. These fictions are useful, but they’re fictions all the same. The fairytales that warn us about the dangers of the forest.
The truth about time is that, so far as we can tell, it’s limitless. There will always be another moment after this one, you could say, like the ceaseless progression of a wandering star.
But a more helpful idea might be that there is only ever one moment, and it’s this one. Next year and last month are abstractions that will never become real. Living for the future, or even worse, for the past, means missing everything.
Every border and classification works this way. We define ourselves by what we are not, a liquid poured into the shape of the vessel made to contain it. No one expects the water to keep the shape of the bottle once it’s been poured out. No one tries to sell the water an endless progression of ever more shapely and crystalline bottles.
You have, quite literally, all the time in the world.
All the time that there has ever been. This crystalline moment, wavering between phantoms of past and future, is the only real and necessary thing that exists.
And even your memories are a part of the present; part of the moment in which you relive them.
The train, blind and driverless as a great white worm, groaning its way into the station. Her stepping onto it and turning to face the doors that closed behind her as though it was an elevator, her tight little smile showing through the brightly lit window. Right now, the train is drawing her away, and once again, I’m watching and saying nothing. And soon, the train will disappear around the bend in the track, and I’ll climb back to the street outside for the last time, leaving the station empty of everything but starlight.
It’s not Saturday. It’s not 2 PM. It’s not 2020. It’s just now, and it will always be now, and time will never run out. You will not live to see the end of the world.